These days it seems like every business is poking and prodding its customers to try to get them to say how satisfied they were. Over the last month I tracked my own interactions with the companies I dealt with. Roughly two-thirds of the websites I spent any time on, and every one of the six contact centers I had occasion to deal with, asked at some point whether I'd be willing to participate in a post-interaction survey about my satisfaction or willingness to recommend.

At many companies, these kinds of transactional satisfaction scores are now incorporated into the overall management incentives that drive the business. The scores are used to evaluate different agents' performance at contact centers, or to track the quality of service delivered at various retail locations, or to compare one division or business unit with another, or to track year-over-year change, or any combination of these and other objectives.

And on the whole, I have to say, this is a good thing. Every business should definitely be concerned with the level of satisfaction experienced by its customers. However, as positive as the idea is overall, it's important to keep three things in mind:

  • A customer's satisfaction with your service is primarily a function of their own prior expectations. A satisfaction survey doesn't measure the flawlessness of your product or the competence and skill with which your service is delivered. Far from it. When you ask someone how "satisfied" they are with your offering, you are asking a purely subjective question. You're testing the customer's own subjective evaluation, which depends on what they expected beforehand.
    In some industries, for instance, everyone already expects lousy service, and when the service is less terrible than you expect, you'll report being satisfied, maybe even highly satisfied. Retail banks come to mind, as do mobile phone networks, cable television companies. Or think about airlines. Airline expert Michael Baiada has suggested that the fundamental problem in the airline business is poor management and resistance to change. According to Baida, 80 percent of the industry's financial problems can be traced to basic quality management. So if your flight operates on time and nothing goes wrong (i.e., you got exactly what you paid for and nothing more), are you highly satisfied?
  • When you ask everyone to complete a survey, after every transaction, you'll be lucky if 5% of your customers agree to complete the survey (and over time, expect this percentage to drop steadily). Even if you get a 20% response rate, however, the survey is still going to be highly biased. When only a small minority of customers choose to complete a survey it won't represent a statistically valid sample. You won't be able assume they represent the average customer, because when only a small minority choose to participate they are, by definition, not average. Perhaps they chose to participate because they were extremely delighted, or perhaps extremely disappointed. Or perhaps they chose to help you because they have a naturally helpful personality, or because they were in a naturally helpful mood. But if you want results that allow you understand what's really going on generally, then you need a more representative sample. You might get higher survey participation by offering a small gift or token of appreciation to a tiny fraction of customers, in return for their completing the survey. But if you query a thousand customers and get 700 responses, for a 70% completion rate, you will have much more insight into what's really going on than if you queried a million customers and got 70,000 responses, a 7% completion rate.
    In fairness, the big advantage of a universal survey is that it allows those few customers who were really upset to identify themselves. This is "complaint discovery," and if that's your objective, great. But rather than pestering everyone to answer a survey (usually before they even know what the interaction will be like), why not simply provide a feedback link directly on your web site, just to make it easy for customers who do have a suggestion or a complaint to make themselves heard?
  • I once bought a new car from a dealership that advertised its very high customer satisfaction ratings. As I signed the papers, the salesman handed me a questionnaire that asked about my own satisfaction. Explaining first that the dealership's revenue and his own personal compensation both depended on customer ratings, the salesman slid the survey across the desk and asked (wink wink) whether I had in fact been very satisfied with the overall sales experience. The survey came with a postage-paid envelope, but the salesman encouraged me to fill it out right then, while I was in his office, to avoid having to find a mailbox later, especially if I were (wink) very satisfied.
    And last week Verizon's Erin Van Remortel shared that when a friend had taken an Uber car somewhere, attached to the back of the front seat had been a page of instructions explaining what would happen if the driver didn't receive a 5-star review, because "anything below a 4.6 rating can be cause for suspension."

When jobs and incentives depend on evaluations rendered by subjective customers in these very unscientific satisfaction surveys, you can bet your bonus that a cheat sheet will be provided by someone.

Published on: Jul 13, 2017